The ACT & SAT Essay - How it is scored

I find that there is a lot of confusion when it comes to the Essay Writing portion on both the ACT and the SAT, so I am here to offer clarification on some of the most common questions I have seen about the essay.

(Note: The main difference between essays is that the SAT Essay allows you 25 minutes, and the ACT Essay allows you 30 minutes.)

 1. Does it need to be a 5 paragraph essay?

No, it does not. An essay can have anywhere between four to seven paragraphs and still receive a high score. However, for students who have trouble writing essays under pressure, I find that trying to follow a 5-paragraph format does save you the stress of trying to figure out how to structure you essay.

Reminder: A 5-Paragraph Essay features ONE Introduction Paragraph, THREE well-developed examples, and ONE conclusion paragraph.

2. I can’t think up examples! Help!

Fortunately for you, the essay is not intended to test your knowledge of literature or history, so if you can’t think of literary examples, rely on something you may be more comfortable with. Most of you should have something stored in your memory banks that may be related to the prompt. Or maybe there in something in popular culture that may ring true.

Essay graders are taught not to grade by your choice of examples, but to grade solely on how well you write your essay. So, there is no problem if you essay is about Snooki and JWow as long as your essay is written well. I repeat -- as long as your essay is written well.

3. I still can’t think up any examples. Can I make some up?

Yes, you can. Again, graders are told to ignore any factual inaccuracies, so feel free to fudge the facts. If you want to make up a story about a sister that you don’t have, or if you want to fabricate a biography about the fictional leader of Chumakastan, you can do so.

Caviat: If you choose to make up examples, do so within reason. Saying that George Washington was an anti-Semite may raise eyebrows and inadvertently hurt you score.

4. How do I write a good essay?

Your essay will be graded holistically. That means that you will receive a score based on your overall essay. Spelling or grammar errors will be ignored as long as they don’t detract from the essay.

Readers will grade off the following 4 criteria.

  • Assignment – Does your argument have a clear response to the prompt (ie. A thesis)?
  • Examples – Do your examples properly relate to you argument?
  • Detail – Are your examples fully and insightfully developed?
  • Style – Effective word choice. Varied syntax.  Use of creative language. Etc.

 5. What else should I know?

You tell me! If there is a question you would like me to answer about the essay, feel free to ask me! Good luck on the ACT and SAT!

For more tips and advice on the SAT or ACT, check out the following:



  1. Jeanne says

    Rumor has it there is an advantage to writing the essay in cursive. That takes longer and for some may be harder to read. What is the reality.

    • says

      Jeanne, I think you can safely disregard this rumor. The essay portions of both exams are scored based on writing ability, not penmanship. As long as your writing is legible, you don't get any extra points for style.

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